From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.
But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…
Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).
Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.
Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.
Blurring the Lines
Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.
The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.
In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….
Christianity is Intertextual
Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.
Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.
Blurring the Lines
Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.
But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.
Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.
Stories Versus Stories
In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.
But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.
The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.
This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.